- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The rematch is more about rankings and recruiting, but today’s Gator Bowl is still a regional rivalry — even if it has moved to a warmer locale.

“Whether we play in September or January, there’s not a lot of difference,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said.

More than 42,000 Terrapins and Mountaineers fans have flooded the North Florida town looking for a winter respite. The game won’t decide a championship or propel either into the top 10 rankings, but it’s a chance for some seafood, golf and beach time for polar bear club members. More than 79,000 are expected for the game, which would be the largest Gator Bowl crowd since 1989.

“We could win the tailgate party,” joked Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez, referring to the 25,000 West Virginia fans.

The game is also an opportunity for redemption. Maryland’s 0-2 start ended talk of being a national contender. West Virginia opened 1-3, including a 34-7 loss at Maryland on Sept. 20. However, the teams are a combined 14-2 since their meeting. Maryland finished as ACC runner-up while West Virginia shared the Big East title. A bowl victory would help alleviate the disappointment of not meeting high expectations.

A victory would keep No. 23 Maryland (9-3) ranked and give it its third straight 10-win season under Friedgen. That was incentive enough for Friedgen to work the Terps hard in recent practices in order to avoid another letdown in a turbulent year. Friedgen spent more time as a head shrinker than a head coach to try and inspire a team spoiled by two straight successful years.

“You don’t get many chances to win 10, much less three years in a row,” he said. “Their identity is a team that persevered. They met adversity and overcame it. Hopefully, they can carry that with them for life because that’s what successful people do.”

Coincidentally, both teams rallied after struggling early in the season. Maryland won four straight after falling to 5-3 while No.20 West Virginia (8-4) followed its Terps loss with a narrow 24-22 loss to then No.2 Miami before running off seven straight wins.

“We were so disappointed in how we played you start to lose some confidence,” Rodriguez said. “You tell younger players don’t worry about the scoreboard. Just go out and try to win the next play and took that approach to the Miami game.”

Rodriguez played the conservative role yesterday during a joint news conference. He tried to downplay expectations.

“I don’t want this one game to define our season, if it doesn’t go the way we want,” Rodriguez said. “Maryland is the best team we played this year. The first game, we got whipped on the line. We could play better and still not win the game.”

Maryland leads the series 20-19-1, but it’s the first bowl rematch in what’s usually an early-season game. Both coaches are concerned with overanalyzing the first game.

“Coaches start playing the ‘what if game,’” Friedgen said. “You have to be careful blocking ghosts. I worry about how our kids perceive it. West Virginia hasn’t really changed a whole lot. I keep telling my staff they’re going to change. You’ve got to be ready.”

Said Rodriguez: “It makes it harder because you play the ‘what if game.’ Are they going to do the same thing earlier?”

Maryland kicker Nick Novak could be the difference. The All-ACC junior is the Terps career leading scorer and beat N.C. State on a last-second field goal. However, he also missed three extra points in the final two games. Novak said the misses were caused by fatigue and the break has refreshed his leg.

“It does blow my mind,” he said. “I never expect to miss an extra point, but I have to forget about it. It happens to the best of us. I want to finish off strong. I’m one of the best in the country and want to prove it.”

Extra points — The ACC won’t issue its 2004 football schedule until after conference meetings on Jan. 21-22 in case Boston College joins this season. Maryland will play host to Miami if Boston College is added immediately. Otherwise, Maryland travels to Virginia Tech. Maryland also is expected to play host to Temple the next two years. … The Terps have started studies of suites sales as part of the Byrd Stadium expansion. No timetable is set, but another 15,000 seats are possible by 2007. The team will consider additional temporary seating next year. The Terps averaged 51,236 this season and their 106.6 percent capacity crowds were the third most nationally.

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